April 24, 2011
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
The week after Easter, several years ago, I received an e-mail from someone who had attended the Easter service. He wrote, “Graham, I’ve been thinking about your Easter sermon. Do you really believe in the resurrection?” I wrote back, “Yep, I do. It would be hard for me to be a pastor and do what I do if I didn’t.”
He wrote back that he had always thought I was such an intelligent person, and that my belief surprised him. He then said that he would have a hard time attending the church of a pastor who actually believed in the resurrection. He had hoped that I would have been more enlightened. I guess the reason I feel comfortable telling this story is that he didn’t come back. But beyond that, he really exemplified one of the basic truths about Jesus Christ. The fact is that Jesus was and is the most transforming and controversial person ever born.
If you look at the impact of his life on the world, it is truly amazing. Because of his teachings, the world was transformed from an “eye for an eye” world to one that, over the centuries, has become more compassionate and caring. This transformation has been uneven and often has looked like two steps forward, one step back. But it’s undeniable that the world has been transformed. Look at our culture. We do things collectively now to help the poor, to reach out to victims of tragedies, to improve care of the sick, and to forgive enemies, that are the result of seeds planted by Christ in the gospels. Whether it is giving to charities, Welfare, the rebuilding of Germany and Japan after World War II, or helping to relieve AIDS in Africa, all have happened because of the influence of Jesus Christ. It’s the incarnation of his self-sacrificing love in the world.
Despite his impact on the world, what we know about his life and resurrection has led to so much doubt. Skeptics abound both about all aspects of Jesus’ life and resurrection. Whether you’re talking about the beliefs of Christians or non-Christians, there’s no real clarity on who Jesus was. Even among Christians there’s dispute. Many of us believe that Jesus was the incarnation of God on earth, and believe that he was resurrected. But there are also many who see themselves as Christian who believe that he was mainly a great prophet, and a great moral teacher. They can’t believe in his divinity or his resurrection. Still, they see themselves as Christians because they are committed to following his teachings. And I’m rarely critical of them because I recognize that they also produce good fruit in their lives by living out Jesus’ teachings. But what they demonstrate is that even among Christians Jesus is controversial and people have a hard time agreeing.
Muslims also have their views about Jesus. For example, most Christians don’t know that in the Muslim religion Jesus is considered to have been the second greatest prophet behind Mohammed. They revere Jesus, but not as the Son of God. They believe that Christians are deluded by their belief that God could be incarnate in a man, which they see as a blasphemy. Still, they believe that to be a good Muslim also means following the teachings of Jesus.
Many Buddhists also have their views about Jesus. They believe that Jesus was a buddha himself, which means that he was a bodhisattva, or enlightened being, who returned to lead others to enlightenment. Buddhists believe that some people eventually reach an enlightened state, and attaining that state choose to return to this life to lead others to enlightenment. Many Buddhists believe Jesus was an enlightened one.
Many agnostics believe that Jesus was simply a great man like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi. They would say that if Jesus lived today, we’d recognize him as a great transformational figure, and nothing more.
There are also many atheists who would tell you that they’re not even sure Jesus existed. They would tell you that there is no historical record of Jesus outside of the Bible, which points to the fact that he was made up. It doesn’t matter that no one really wrote history back then, and the study of history is an Age of Enlightenment discipline that arose only when cultures became economically strong enough that certain people had the leisure to study and write history. In other words, there’s no historical record outside the Bible because people didn’t write history (actually, the Jewish writer, Josephus, did write about a person named Chrestou who caused trouble in Israel and was executed).
Just as there is controversy and confusion about Jesus’ life, there’s also just as much controversy and confusion about his resurrection. You have those who believe he was resurrected, and because of their beliefs they’ve actually had spiritual experiences that lead them to deepen their beliefs. Then there are those who say that Jesus was never resurrected, and that the apostles were simply lying. My struggle with that belief is that if you know the eventual fate of the apostles, all except John died terrible and painful deaths because of their beliefs. False prophets and liars rarely die for their beliefs, especially not willingly at the hands of others demanding that they give up their beliefs. Christianity is full of people dying for their beliefs.
A few years ago I had a conversation with a woman who really embodied the struggle with what to do with Jesus’s resurrection. She said that she was a Christian, and she loved to both read and tell stories about miracles that happen in people’s lives. But she told me that she didn’t believe in the resurrection because it didn’t make rational sense. I said to her, “Wait,… you believe in all these miracles that don’t make rational sense, but you don’t believe in the resurrection because it doesn’t make rational sense? You do recognize the contradiction, right?” She didn’t. She just kept insisting that the resurrection didn’t make rational sense.
Personally I’ve gone through every one of these views throughout my life. I’ve struggled with Jesus and with his resurrection. And I eventually came to the same conclusion as Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard was a nineteenth century Danish philosopher who wrote a lot about what it means to be a Christian. Kierkegaard made an absolutely profound observation of the Christian life when he said that no person becomes a true Christian because it makes rational sense. He said that anyone who says that the Bible and Christian faith makes rational sense has never truly been a Christian. Instead, to be a Christian means to stand on the edge of an abyss of absurdity, with God on the other side. And at some point we need to leap across that abyss (what many now call “the leap of faith”) into God’s arms. We recognize that to do so seems like absurdity to the world at large, but we also know that until we do this we never really come to know God or live a real life lived with God. This leap is a leap of faith, not a rational choice.
What makes belief in Christ’s resurrection a leap is that it requires us to accept a truth about God and the universe. This truth is that God created everything according to certain laws of physics, and yet God gets to break these laws whenever God wants. God did not create a creation that is more powerful than God. God is beyond the created universe, and we understand, as Christians, that God often breaks into creation to do something that goes beyond the rules of creation. In other words, God both created and breaks the laws.
This ability of God to do things beyond the laws of nature is the reason why miracle stories are so prominent in both the Bible and in Christian history. If you look at both, you’ll find that for thousands of years people have been experiencing God in miraculous ways. Let me show you what I mean:
Do you know who Ben Carson is? For many years Ben Carson was the head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Hospital. He did not start out on that path. Back when he was a kid living in the projects of Detroit, he expected little out of his life except to be dead from gun violence by the time he reached adulthood. He described himself as the dumbest kid in the fifth grade, but that all changed when a friend of his was shot. He and his family became determined that he would make something of himself. He eventually went to Yale, and then to Johns Hopkins for medical school. Today he is known worldwide for his work in separating a number of Siamese twins joined at the head.
Carson became world-renown at the end of 1997 when he and a team of specialists performed surgery in South Africa on a pair of Siamese twins from Zambia. The surgery lasted over thirty hours, and it was grueling. After nineteen hours of surgery, the surgery team took a break in the conference room, exhausted. Carson felt defeated. When they had cut through the skull and pulled the heads just a bit apart to see what the surgery required, Carson looked in and saw what he described as a mass of spaghetti. It was too complex. He had no way of knowing which vein or artery belonged where. He was overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do. The team considered stopping the operation, but they knew they couldn’t. Carson retreated to be by himself, and prayed. Carson prayed that God would take over and simply used him to accomplish what only God could do.
Carson went back into surgery. The heads were pulled back again, and again Carson looked in at the mass of spaghetti, but this time something different happened. Carson just knew what to do. It was as though God was in him, directing his hands and leading his thoughts. For the next six hours, he clipped this vein, attached that artery, cauterized this capillary, and reconnected that vein. At the very end of his part of the surgery, as he clipped the last vein connecting the twins, an amazing thing happened. The “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah played over the stereo system. God had surprised Carson and the rest of the team by being a miraculous presence in their midst.
Jim Altman also discovered how God can work miracles in ways we don’t expect. Altman is the director of a school for emotionally disturbed children in Jacksonville, Florida. Several years ago he was in Columbus, Ohio to speak at a motivational conference. The morning of his talk he went to a local diner for breakfast. Sitting at the counter next to another man, both looked at their menus. The waitress asked Altman what he wanted. Altman pointed at the man next to him and said, “He was here first. Go ahead and take his order.” The man said to Altman, “No,… you go ahead. I’ve learned to be patient in my life.” So Altman gave his order, shortly followed by the other man.
As they sat on their stools, reading their papers, Altman leaned over and said, “So tell me how you learned to be patient.” The man introduced himself as Richard, and said, “I used to work in construction. About five years ago I fell off a rooftop and struck my head hard on the ground. I was taken to the hospital for emergency surgery, and had to go through almost a year of rehabilitation. I learned to be patient doing all my rehab. I also happened to be rushed to the perfect hospital for this kind of injury—Riverside Methodist Hospital. It turns out they have one of the best neurosurgery units in the country. Some would call it luck, but I’ve learned that we call it luck only when we’re too embarrassed to call it God. My friend, this is important. If you ever have a problem with your head, go to Riverside Methodist.” Jim thought to himself, “Yeah, that will do me a lot of good, living in Jacksonville.”
Later that afternoon, Jim took a run in Union Cemetery—a beautiful, old cemetery just off of the campus of Ohio State University. Suddenly a searing pain shot through his temple and through the base of his skull. It drove him to his knees. He could barely breathe because of the pain. He crawled as best he could to find help. Eventually, after twenty minutes, he crawled into the caretaker’s office. The caretaker asked him what to do, and Altman said, “Take me to Riverside Methodist Hospital,” which just happened to be across the street from the cemetery.
If Altman had not been so close to the hospital, or if he had gone somewhere else, he probably wouldn’t have survived. He had had a massive cranial hemorrhage. But the quick work of the hospital doctors and staff saved his life. Today, Altman knows what it is like to experience a miracle—one that’s not rational, but it is a miracle nonetheless.
Let me finish with just one more miraculous story. A number of years ago an atheist was hiking through a forest in Montana. It was stunningly beautiful. The atheist was in awe of the sky, the trees, the mountains, the streams—everything. Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted something. A seven-foot grizzly appeared from behind a bush and rushed him. Now, we’re all told to freeze when rushed by a grizzly, but this man dropped everything and ran.
He ran fast, but the bear was faster. He cried out, “God, I know that I’ve never believed in you, but if you are there, please help me.” The bear rushed closer. Again, he prayed, “God, if you are there, please help me!” Suddenly everything froze—the bear, the birds flying by, the dust kicked up into the air. He heard a voice: “Sure, sure,… you pray to me now when you are in trouble. You disbelieve in me for most of your life, but now you want me to do something. You want me to save you.”
The atheist thought for a moment, and then said, “You’re right, God. Asking you to help me is quite hypocritical. And I don’t want to be a hypocrite. So how about this? Just make the bear a Christian?” God said, “Okay, it’s as you wish.”
Suddenly everything unfroze and the bear was running towards him again. But before the bear reached him, it stopped. It then dropped to its knees, folded its paws, and said in a human voice, “God is great, God is good, and we thank him for our food.”
I’ve discovered some basic truths about life that are important. First, you are what you eat. Second, you become who your friends are. Third, and this is the most important, you see what you believe. There’s so much in life that we can’t ever see until we start to believe it. But when we do believe, it’s amazing what we see. I learned this lesson several years ago right after we moved to our present home.
We live on an acre of wooded property, and one of the things I loved when we moved there was the beautiful green foliage covering the floor of the woods. A year after we moved there a person was visiting our house and asked me, “Graham, why do you let all that poison ivy grow everywhere.” I looked at him, puzzled: “What poison ivy?” “It’s everywhere,” he said, “All in those woods.” That was the beautiful green foliage covering the floor of the woods. I don’t get poison ivy, so I never saw it as poison ivy. Once I knew what it was, I saw it everywhere.
Faith is the same way. If you don’t believe, you can’t see. But once you believe, it’s amazing what you see.
We’re gathered today to celebrate a miracle that many people did witness, and it’s a miracle that has made a difference in billions of lives. But to discover he power of that miracle, believing is seeing.